Friday, April 25, 2014

Danube Bike Trip — Day 4

Grein to Melk

It rained during the night. I noticed that as soon as I got up. I opened the window to check the temperature and it felt cold, very cold. In fact, a few drops of rain were still falling. Breakfast at the Hotel Aumühle was okay, nothing like the huge feast in Linz. I had stopped at a Hofer supermarket just before entering Grein yesterday and bought some food that I ate in my room last night: herring in sour cream, cheese filled chilis in olive oil, yogurt and bread. After the 30 € Wiener Schnitzel extravagance the other night at the Arcotel it was time to save a bit of money on dinner. The store stuff was surprisingly tasty and now that I've had the hotel's breakfast I reckon I made a good decision. I also bought a Yesss SIM card (5 €) so I can be in contact with Helga, my Couchsurfing host in Vienna.
A chilly damp morning

Pretty rocks alongside the Donauradweg

St. Nikola

I started the ride today wearing a polypro pullover cap instead of the baseball hat I got from Eurobike. The weather this morning was so chilly I figured the extra warmth would be welcome, and it was; most of the day was cold and overcast. Once again, the dark clouds had a silver lining because of the nice tailwind accompanying them. Some photos of the journey along the Donauradweg follow:


A section of the bike path travels this highway
Bicycle access ramp to a bridge

Just after this photo was taken I got caught by the rain at last. I jacketed up and had to wait only a short while until the sun came out. (Willy Nelson was singing Blue Skies at the time, no kidding!). But then as I was pulling in to Melk, some hail started. I was only minutes away from the Hotel zur Post so I hustled right on over there and parked the bike for the night.






Sun!
Blue skies — for a while
Is that the last of the rain? Not quite.
When I parked the bike in the Hotel zur Post garage I had logged 56.2 km (35 miles) in 3 hr 16 min of pedaling,  4 hr 15 min total. Maximum speed I reached was 57 km/hr (35 mph) going down the hill to town from the Hotel Aumühle. I might have gone faster but I got stuck behind a big truck and couldn't get around it. There was a fairly steady tail wind for much of the afternoon. It's always good to travel this cycleway from west to east.


The Bike:
Eurobike supplied this bicycle for the trip. It was very well made and maintained, a bit heavier and sturdier than most touring bikes seen in the U.S., and perfect for the sort of riding I'm undertaking. The waterproof handlebar bag and single pannier reminded me of the high quality Ortleib panniers I own. Both are easily clipped onto and off the bike so they can be taken along when leaving the bike unattended.


It had Shimano SIS indexed shifters for both front and rear derailleurs, and Shimano cantilever brakes. It also had a headlight and tail light powered by a generator that I never had occasion to use. Everything worked well — the bike rode quietly and was quite solid and comfortable. I give Eurobike good marks on their choice of equipment. Electric assist bikes are available for slightly more money.


Audio gear: iPhone 5, PanApp player, Mighty H Bluetooth Headphones
Today's Playlist:
St. Vincent: St. Vincent
U2: Joshua Tree
Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
Wilco: Wilco [The Album]
Willy Nelson: Stardust



Factoids:

  • Want to use a shopping cart at Hofer? It will cost you 1 € to rent one.
  • Want to smoke in a restaurant? Some Austrian cafes and restaurants still allow this. There are many smokers in Austria.




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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Danube Bike Trip — Day 3

Linz to Grein via Mauthausen

I might have found the perfect way to travel. It's relatively guilt free and it's good exercise.

The regime: bicycling between high end hotels where the staff falls all over themselves taking care of you, eating great food in those same hotels in the mornings and evenings and, last but not least, traveling light because a touring company moves your baggage for you while you're pedaling.  This makes for a nice vacation, especially if you choose the right trip and the right outfitter. The one I picked is Eurobike's Category A option — which means I stay in 4-star or better hotels and get breakfast. Throw in the bike rental, an extra night in Passau, etc., and it came out to about $1,000. Early April is officially the off season and prices are slightly higher later on.

Anyway, the Arcotel-Linz hotel is definitely a 4-star hotel and the breakfast they put out was an amazing affair. They had everything you could ever want in a breakfast; lox and cheeses, all kinds of pastries including the famous Linzertorte, strange and exotic tepenades and salads, a zillion kinds of breads, rolls and jams to anoint them with, the de rigueur coldcut platters, fresh fruit and yogurt, even a roast of beef! The tables were laid with fine linen and each had a stainless thermos of coffee waiting.

I left the hotel at about 8:30 in bright sun and I was looking forward to a pleasant day at last. Alas, it was not to be. The weather turned ugly almost immediately. Dark clouds scudded across the sky and when I reached the open river bank, the wind, luckily a tailwind, kicked up. I hurried along because I wanted to visit the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, one the most infamous of the Nazi death camps built during World War II and in which thousands perished under the most horrendous conditions imaginable.

Leaving Linz

I arrived in the pretty little town of Mauthausen at about 10 o'clock and was immediately struck by the fact that many of these same homes were here in 1938 when the camp was being built and afterward when it was the scene of the most barbaric cruelty in modern times. The Wikipedia article estimates that between 120-320 thousand people died there. What were these people thinking when they performed services for the SS troops who garrisoned the prison? When they celebrated Christmas with their families?

I have to wonder how these ordinary people could come to accept what was happening up on the hill above town. It must have happened gradually, this acceptance, this feeling that what was happening was deserved by the victims. Most of the people who died there were Jews who were historically reviled in much of Europe and even in the United States in the early 20th century. Adolph Hitler, a charismatic and deeply sociopathic leader, came to power and put forth a theory that these people were the cause of Germany's problems after WWI and in that process intentionally dehumanized them, making them seem to be animals, "the other". The Nazis weren't the first political group to operate this way; Europeans did it with native Americans, the American leadership did it with Vietnamese and Iraqis, but they were more determined and far more thorough than any regime before them.

Entrance to Mauthausen

As I entered the camp, the wind picked up and a cold rain began to fall. Here are a few photos of the entrance area, where new arrivals were brutalized, beaten or even killed instantly for the merest offenses. We will never know how many people died in this spot but it is surely a very large number.


The prison kommandant stood in this pulpit 
Prisoners in Mauthausen

Entrance area — pulpit at left center

"Stairs of Death"
Prisoners were made to carry huge blocks of granite from Mauthausen's quarry up these stairs. If a person couldn't do it or faltered he was severely beaten and often killed in his tracks.

Stairs of Death
If the work and inhuman living conditions didn't kill them, there were the gas chamber and ovens waiting.




Stone tablet in the Room of Names

Book of Names

Mauthausen was only one of hundreds of such camps that were build during World War II. Many of the towns I visited in my travels had camps either in them or nearby: Passau, Linz, Amstettin, Gusen, Melk, and Vienna.  A huge and efficient infrastructure was required to kill 6,000,000 people and these camps were a part of that. After seeing some of the heart rending exhibits and gruesome photos in the museum days later I find myself waking up at night thinking about the camp, wondering how it would be to spend a winter there, naked, starving, beaten, weak, alone, and only sure of one thing; that you would never leave Mauthausen alive. It gives me the shakes.

There are many other photographs in the links at the end of this post. I took in as much of the museum as I could endure but after seeing the Room of Names I was finished. I rode quickly down the steep hill I had walked the bike up two hours earlier and through Mauthausen, this time without without stopping. I reached Grein 3 hours later.

Entering Grein in light rain
I had to wait a couple of hours in Grein for a shuttle to take us up the 5 km long climb to the Hotel Aumühle, the only hotel in my tour that was not close to the Donauradweg. I walked around the pretty little town taking photos in the occasional sunshine.




I was ready to move right in to this little cottage

By the time I got to the hotel and unpacked rain had started falling steadily. I was happy to stay inside. I had stopped at a Hofer supermarket where I bought some nice takeaway food; herring in sour cream, cheese stuffed chili peppers, yogurt and sparkling water. I had biked 70 km (43 miles) in 5 hours and 15 minutes.

That night whenever I woke up, images of Mauthausen and what happened there 70 years ago flooded my mind.


Links:

Wikipedia: Mauthausen Concentration Camp

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum




Reading: Wild, from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed (Kindle ed.)


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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Danube Bike Trip — Day 2

Hotel Donnauschlinge to Linz

The first part of the day was bicycling at its best. I left the hotel after another sumptuous breakfast and started south along the Donauradweg. It was cool and overcast but quiet and calm, perfect biking weather. By my calculations the day's run to Linz was going to be roughly 56 km, about 35 miles. Back in the day that would be a piece of cake for me. I used to do the 29-mile North Fork Loop in just a few hours. and it involves some big hills. These days I'm used to riding a bike with a big comfortable seat, and a motor, not to mention being 10 years older, so I worried that 35 miles might present a bit of a challenge. After a few minutes riding though I felt that all was right in the world. I was zipping along listening to the birdsong and going with the flow, literally, through some country that, while not as wild as Alaska, was agreeably rustic and quite beautiful. Heavy forest rims both shores of the Donau along here.


A very pleasant bike path


Smooth running
There are a bunch of us doing the same tour with Eurobike and we pass one another now and again, exchanging hellos and see ya' laters when we do.

Fellow travelers

View of Untermuhl, Austria

The 20 km from the Donauschlinge south to Aschach has got to be one of the nicest pieces of cycleway in the world. I enjoyed every second of it. At Aschach I crossed the river again to proceed along the north shore to just before Linz where I crossed it again. The Eurobike staff provide a guidebook and maps and make suggestions about which side is most scenic or easiest to travel. That means we often find ourselves on bridges, taking a ferry or crossing at one of several power projects that span the mighty Donau. The second part of this day's travel wasn't in the same class as those first 20 kms. The path traversed some farm country and a few long, straight stretches that were a bit of a slog. The last 10 km were predictably unpleasant as traffic intensified the closer we got to Linz.

A gravel forest road runs alongside the bikepath here



I had a good tail wind on these straight stretches and that really, really helps. The few riders I saw going the opposite way were fighting for every inch of forward motion with heads down and clothing slapping in the fresh breeze. No thanks. Been there, done that.

I had been noticing a smaller gravel road, a forest service road, paralleling the bike path. I decided to ride it for a while just for a change of scene.


Out of the wind — a good place for a rest
Just as I hopped on the bike after this break a few raindrops began to fall. I got back on the main bikepath and kicked the pace up a notch. The rest of the ride was boring and noisy — lots of vehicular traffic, all of it going fast.

The last few miles before Linz
I found my hotel, the Arcotel Nike-Linz, which is a ritzy high-rise in a lovely green area of Linz. I was tired from the trip, and my butt was sore but I thought I should check this city out, a city much loved by Mozart, and Hitler, but just as I was getting ready for my shower I heard the wind just howling outside. The rain which had held off all day was slashing down, blowing horizontally in a torrential downpour. I had unwittingly beat it to Linz by just 15 minutes.

I decided to stay in the hotel for the rest of the evening. I had traveled 56.6 km in 3 hr 49 minutes ride time, 7 hours door to door.


Audio equipment: iPhone 5, PanApp music player, Mighty-H Bluetooth headphones
Today's Playlist:
Beck : Morning Phase
Beethoven: Piano Trio, No. 1 Op. 1 No. 1
Massive Attack: Heligoland
The National: High Violet
Radiohead: In Rainbows
wind noise
birdsong
traffic noise 



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Monday, April 14, 2014

Danube Bike Trip - The real Day 1

I woke early this morning, at 6 am, to a chilly, grey day, a rainy day. I had not checked the weather report because I was committed — what was I to do about it if it was bad? I've paid for the entire trip, my next hotel is 25 miles away, and I have the bike. Rain will just have to be dealt with. It is spring after all and it rains in the spring. April showers ... etc.

I decided not to get too bummed about it and went to breakfast. The accommodations that come with this tour package, which is Eurobike's mid-priced tour, are all 4-star hotels and the Hotel Weisser Hase certainly met my expectations in that regard. You can pick a full-board or a half-board tour. Half-board is cheaper and with that choice you get breakfast only along with the room. Well, the buffet breakfast at the Weisser Hase is something to brag about. It is a huge spread with assorted pastries, cereals, fruits and juices, eggs and bacon, breads, croissants, and because it's Europe, there are big trays holding various cold cuts and cheeses. The tables are set with Germanic precision and everything is spotless, impeccable.

By the time I got back to my room and divided my stuff into what I was taking with me on the bike and what I was leaving for the Eurobike staff to shuttle to my next hotel the overcast had lifted. A little later the sun glinted brightly out of the heavy overcast. It only showed itself for a moment but it made me anxious to get a move on. I attached the handlebar pack holding my cameras and other ready access stuff and the single pannier holding my raingear and extra dry clothes to the bike and off I went.

As I left Passau behind and hit the bike path I started to get excited about the ride ahead. The path follows highways sometimes, other times it's unpaved, but most of it is a smooth asphalt path that you have all to yourself. And it's easy pedaling. After only 5 km the Danube Cycle Path, or Donauradweg in Germanenters Austria. The border between the two countries follows the Danube here with Germany on the north side and Austria on the south. It's nice to be able to hop back and forth between them with no border crossing guards or immigration officials to contend with. Hell, since 9/11 Americans can't even go to Canada without a passport.

Leaving Passau, south side of Danube

A little further on, the pavement stops for a short stretch
For a few miles the path runs alongside of route B130, a major 2-lane highway, but it was Sunday morning and there was practically no traffic. The Donauradweg crosses a languid clear water brook on this little covered bridge.


Almost before I knew it I came to the power project where we were to cross back into Germany. I rode across the coffer dam and stopped for a cuppa in a small cafe. Half the total distance for the day was in the bag already and it was only 11 o'clock!
My ride — a nice 21-speed tourer from Eurobike 


Not a bright day but a day without rain

Old building along the way
Before long my hotel swung into view on the Austrian side of the river. I hitched a ride over on their little shuttle ferry and when I stepped off its deck had reached the end of Day One of the tour. I had biked a total 42 km or 26 miles and it was only 1 o'clock — a pretty good start.

The Hotel Donauschlinge - my home for the night

Tour boat on the Danube at sundown
Time for a movie or a little reading and then to bed.